A Cacophony of Enlightenment & Empathy

May 5, 2010
“A Dustland fairytale beginning…”

Beginnings are merely beginnings of lives destined to end. Bob Dylan once quoted, “All this talk about equality. The only thing people really have in common is that they are all going to die.”

Mark and Laura J were quintessential beauty; the classic 1950s black and white, pearl embellished marriage. They lived a fairytale. She was a former model, brunette, tall, slender. He was a wealthy lawyer. They had two children, Lila and Tyler, and everything worked so smoothly and fit so cohesively and I bought the lie.

Lila and I went to elementary school and junior high together, and became friends only when it seemed that no one else would. Neither one of us had straight blond hair or were outgoing like the popular kids, and in such a small school, there are only two groups; it is with ease that I can say that we were in the “lesser” of the two. Our friends coped much better with the confinement, but Lila and I needed a way out.

Mr. J gave Lila a teal Fender Stratocaster about the same time I discovered music, and we had found an outlet. Music was hypnotic, numbing, enraging, blissful. Lyrics could pull me into a different realm—a different life. I could fill emptiness with an art form; vocals that warmed the coldness in me, guitar that shocked me to life, rhythm that calmed my thoughts and fears. In car rides we would turn on The Killers and sing to Mr. Brightside, envisioning standing next to the lead vocalist, Brandon Flowers, far away from our problems. What I did not realize was that Lila’s pain and problems were much more violent than mine, and it was stemming from her parents, their own problems about to boil over, burning and scalding those dearest to them in their progression.

But, it was unseen. They laughed together and always said, “I love you” at the end of every phone conversation and never fought, at least not in front of people. Mr. J always talked to me like an adult. He cared how I was doing in school and was quick to laugh at my jokes, and never once in my life did I ever see any other side of him. Never once did I see him in his true light.

“Change came in disguise, set his soul on fire. She says she always knew he’d come around. And the decades disappear like sinking ships…”

Change seems to come quickly to those rooted, statuesque; yet, those who promise change—promise a transformation are quick to disappoint. It is this effect that leaves a faulty promise’s victim chained in the past as the present floats swiftly away.

We all sat around Lila on the wooden cabin floor at Girl Scout camp, fearful 6th graders. The voices of the parents sifted up the stairs and through the screens from the campfire below in a low mumble. Cicadas buzzed menacingly at the dark. Jack’s Mannequin played through the speaker’s on someone’s bunk bed. Everything I was hearing seemed like a world away compared to what had just been said. The parents, the insects, and for the first time, music was not soothing, nor euphoric, nor saddening; it was just filling vacant silence with valueless chatter and rhyme. I sat and stared in silence, but inside I was imploding; my heart was racing in an irregular pattern of shallow murmurs and heavy, droning thuds. Nothing in my life, or any of our lives, could compare to the horror Lila had just shared with us.
“What?” was all I said. I saw the composure slip off of her face. Fear replaced it and reflected my own.
“My dad tried to choke my mom,” was all she said.
Almost immediately after Lila confided in us, Mr. J left his family and bought an apartment on the other side of town. The flawless façade their marriage had pulled off began to crumble shortly there after. My parents told me that it was likely Mr. J had bipolar disorder, and not until years after the incident did I find out he used cocaine for self-medication. My parents prohibited me from hanging out at Lila’s house, but I had to pretend like nothing was wrong in front of her. I naively thought that somehow our friendship would contain some normalcy; she was my best friend after all.

But Lila was living experiences that I had yet touched on. I was stranded; I could not help her, I could not relate to her, and she was changing as fast as the days were passing. She came to school one day completely broken and shattered—only muttering that her father had screamed that she was “an insolent child” that morning. Relentlessly she would beg him to come home, or asked if she could live with him, and he would decline. She shut me out and left me completely alienated around junior high classmates that rejected me. It took two years for my parents to let me hang out at her house again, but by that time things were too different. Through betrayal and fights and anger, I gave up on her. It was my inability to understand the complexity of her life and the reason for her change that hindered our friendship. I had sat in silence for too long, rereading the fairytale, turning the pages waiting for the happy ever after that would never come.

“But we persevere, God gives us hope. But we still fear what we don’t know…”

Fear can divide, but fear can also unite. In this unification we can live a life beyond fear that alone would have consumed us. C.S. Lewis describes this friendship as “unnecessary, like philosophy, like art . . . it has no survival value; rather [it] is one of those things that give value to survival.”

Freshman year, being our last year together (Lila was transferring high schools), I pushed even harder to bring things back to the way they were. Bands were the only thing I could talk to her about without yelling, so concerts worked. Mr. J volunteered to take us, the only time he ever came out of the stupor he lived in; like some kind of vampire that crept out of his coffin at night to compensate for the harm he had committed in a previous life.

On one particular night, I stepped out of Mr. J’s luxury vehicle, his polished silver Mercedes-Benz SUV a stark contrast to the barbed wire fencing surrounding the parking lot, and the broken and busted beer cans and bottles scattered around the ill-repaired street. I looked over at Lila with anticipation while she looked at her father with reassurance.
“Really Dad, there’s security and everything, I promise.”
Her father shrugged it off, a tendency much too prevalent in his conversations with her. People were being drawn like gnats to a pulsing light. I couldn’t see their faces underneath their mass of tangled and wild black hair, yet the white glow of their skin shone eerily bright in contrast amongst the jungle of eyeliner, hoods, and bangs. The hum and incessant pulse coming from inside the massive metal door droned out the clang of the soles of feet dragged across iron steps. It seemed at every hesitation of entering the windowless tin box Lila and I fell forward with the push of a mob behind us, and the pull of a magnetic force inside the structure.

Suddenly a high pitch wailing blasted from the end of the room. Repetitive banging and thudding resounded after the initial wave of noise, and people began to scream. My heart raced once again, yet not in fear or anxiety this time, but in a long awaited anticipation and longing to get nearer to the noise and its makers. I began to scream just as the crowd had, and while the band picked up in rhythm and tempo, the music submerged us in an intoxicating and possessing sound, with which the whole building sang along in agreement.

Music was something we could share; something Lila and I could both relate to, even as our friendship faded. It was therapy—therapy that let us scream and release every amount of energy and anger we had to pint up and swallow. Music was powerful, and if it could take control of my actions for just one concert, one song, one chord, I let it. No matter the concert, the venue, the band, Mr. J drove us to every one. And I saw a piece of Mr. J that used to define his life; I saw love and devotion, but it was only a piece, a shadow. Truthfully, nothing could ever make up for what he had brought upon his family. Miraculously, they persevered.

“The mind is poison. Castles in the sky sit stranded, vandalized. A drawbridge is closing…”

The world is potent poison to those who are willing to drink from its cup. Perhaps the only thing between life and death is restraint.

I walked out of my high school volleyball game, checking my phone. I do not remember the score, or the team we played, or anything else that had happened that day. I do remember the one text message, though. Not believing what I read, I called Lila, only to be answered by silence. Seconds passed until sobbing broke through, “My dad died.” And just as before, all I managed was, “What?”

The autopsy reports came in a week or so later, only to confirm a bleak assumption; Mr. J had taken his own life.

A sickening weight pushed down on my chest, relentlessly, for weeks after. It was beyond comprehension, and once again, I was stranded. Somewhere deep inside, I had always dreamed, always thought Mr. J would come home and resume his spot in the perfect family, with miniscule blemishes to sand over. This fairytale I was holding on to, ended. Their castle lay in ruins. The bridge between naïveté and reality was drawn up, and there was no crossing back—for any of us. It was the second time he had left them. “Sorry” vomited out of my mouth again and again but there was nothing else to say. And for a while, silence was all that was exchanged.

“I wouldn’t dream so high…”

Fairytales are meant to live on paper, forever in their inked fates. They live among children’s dreams in clouds of ice cream and human flight.

Reality had ripped apart the J’s family, and it took many months for me to finally come to terms with the fact that Mr. J was gone. Lila remained unfathomably controlled and accepting, but in many ways, he had already left her life long before his death. For an endless period, the burden of his action suffocated the life out of everything else. I searched for something to ease the hurt and blur its brutality, something that could help Lila too.

As I had so many other times in my life, I found resolve in music. Randomly one day, my IPod on shuffle, I listened to a song that I had bought after a trip with the Js. A song that Mrs. J told us to hold on to and remember, and before I could stop, nostalgia and pain consumed me in sobs. I listened to the lyrics of “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” from the Romeo + Juliet album with an unprecedented faith: “Brother and sister together will make it through. Someday a spirit will take you and guide you there. I know you’ve been hurting, but I’ve been waiting to be there for you. And I’ll be there, just helping you out, whenever I can.”

I had been struggling all those years, balancing friendship with grudges—compassion with resentment—and it finally fell in to place. Lila and I were never going to be the best friends we once were, but life was too much to handle without support, without friendship; and if that meant fights, and tears, and stress, I would take it a thousand times over than ever live a second without someone to turn to in my darkest moments. In the conclusion of the song, one piece of advice resonated within me: “Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few, we should hold on…because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.”

Life is full of sublime happiness and unbearable pain, freedom and imprisonment, fairytales and reality; but most importantly it is filled with silence and music; the kind that ring in our hearts and shake our souls, that provide rhythm and balance, the kind to dance to, the kind that heals.

(Excerpts/Quotations taken from the song “A Dustland Fairytale” by the Killers).

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